Looking at what the White Working Class is:
“Working class,” meanwhile, has become a euphemism. It once suggested productivity and sturdiness. Now it means downwardly mobile, poor, even pathological. A significant part of the W.W.C. has succumbed to the ills that used to be associated with the black urban “underclass”: intergenerational poverty, welfare, debt, bankruptcy, out-of-wedlock births, trash entertainment, addiction, jail, social distrust, political cynicism, bad health, unhappiness, early death. The heartland towns that abandoned the Democrats in the eighties to bask in Ronald Reagan’s morning sunlight; the communities that Sarah Palin, on a 2008 campaign stop in Greensboro, North Carolina, called “the best of America . . . the real America”—those places were hollowing out, and politicians didn’t seem to notice. A great inversion occurred. The dangerous, depraved cities gradually became safe for clean-living professional families who happily paid thousands of dollars to prep their kids for the gifted-and-talented test, while the region surrounding Greensboro lost tobacco, textiles, and furniture-making, in a rapid collapse around the turn of the millennium, so that Oxycontin and disability and home invasions had taken root by the time Palin saluted those towns, in remarks that were a generation out of date.
J. D. Vance, a son of Appalachia and the Rust Belt, managed to escape this crisis—he served with the Marines in Iraq, went to college at Ohio State, then attended Yale Law School, forty years after the Clintons went there. He now works in a venture-capital firm. This kind of ascendance, once not so remarkable, now seems urgently in need of the honest accounting that Vance provides in his new memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.” It’s a kind of “Black Boy” of the W.W.C. Vance grew up with a turbulent mother who became addicted to painkillers and bounced from one man to another, giving and receiving abuse. The life he describes is not just materially deprived but culturally isolated and self-destructive. When he meets people with “TV accents,” he feels a deep estrangement. Reading “Hillbilly Elegy,” I understood why, on trips to regions like North Carolina’s Piedmont, I sometimes felt that I’d travelled farther from New York than if I’d gone to West Africa or the Middle East. Vance is tender but unsparing toward his world. “Sometimes I view members of the élite with an almost primal scorn,” he writes. “But I have to give it to them: Their children are happier and healthier, their divorce rates lower, their church attendance higher, their lives longer. These people are beating us at our own damned game.” Vance points out that polls show members of the white working class to be the most pessimistic people in the country.
[The white working class] have no foundation to stand on; they’re unorganized, unheard, unspoken for. They sink alone. The institutions of a healthy democracy—government, corporation, school, bank, union, church, civic group, media organization—feel remote and false, geared for the benefit of those who run them. And no institution is guiltier of this abandonment than the political parties.
So it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise when millions of Americans were suddenly drawn to a crass strongman who tossed out fraudulent promises and gave institutions and élites the middle finger. The fact that so many informed, sophisticated Americans failed to see Donald Trump coming, and then kept writing him off, is itself a sign of a democracy in which no center holds. Most of his critics are too reasonable to fathom his fury-driven campaign. Many don’t know a single Trump supporter. But to fight Trump you have to understand his appeal.
Trump’s core voters are revealed by poll after poll to be members of the W.W.C. His campaign has made them a self-conscious identity group. They’re one among many factions in the country today—their mutual suspicions flaring, the boundaries between them hardening. A disaster on this scale belongs to no single set of Americans, and it will play out long after the November election, regardless of the outcome. Trump represents the whole country’s failure.